Anne Spencer

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Anne Spencer
Anne Bethel Spencer in her wedding dress, 1900
Anne Bethel Spencer in her wedding dress, 1900
BornAnnie Bethel Bannister
(1882-02-06)February 6, 1882
Henry County, Virginia
DiedJuly 27, 1975(1975-07-27) (aged 93)
Lynchburg, Virginia
Alma materVirginia Seminary
Literary movementHarlem Renaissance

Anne Bethel Spencer (born Bannister; February 6, 1882 – July 27, 1975) was an American poet, teacher, civil rights activist, librarian, and gardener. While a librarian at the all-black Dunbar High School, a position she held for 20 years, she supplemented the original three books by bringing others from her own collection at home. Though she lived outside New York City, the recognized center of the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, she was an important member of this group of intellectuals. She met Edward Spencer while attending Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. Following their marriage in 1901, the couple moved into a house he built at 1313 Pierce Street, where they raised a family and lived for the remainder of their lives.

Spencer holds an important place as a widely anthologized poet, and was the first Virginian and one of three African American women included in the highly influential Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (1973). As a civil rights activist for equality and educational opportunities, she and her husband Edward, with close friend Mary Rice Hayes Allen and others, revived the chapter of the NAACP in Lynchburg, Virginia, which had begun in 1913. In association with James Weldon Johnson, the branch became fully active with ninety-six members as of July, 1918.[1] The Spencers' home became an important center and intellectual salon for guests and dignitaries such as Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., James Weldon Johnson, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Anne Spencer also loved her garden and a cottage, Edankraal, which her husband Edward built for her as a writing studio in the garden behind their home. The name Edankraal combines Edward and Anne and kraal, the Afrikaans word for enclosure or corral.


Early life[edit]

Garden at Spencer's house in Lynchburg

Annie Bethel Bannister was born in Henry County, Virginia, to Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales, African Americans who were determined to make a better life for their daughter. Her parents worked on a plantation after their marriage. Both parents, although her father Joel was born a slave in 1862, were part of the first generation of African Americans whose childhood followed the abolition of slavery.

As an only child, she was the center of her parents' affections. This devotion led to their separation over differences in ideas about child rearing. After the separation, Annie Bannister was then known as Annie Scales, taking her mother's maiden name. Mother and daughter moved to West Virginia and settled in Bramwell, a town whose acceptance of African Americans and immigrants was unusual for the time. Annie lodged in the home of the Dixie family while her mother worked as a cook at a local inn. William T. Dixie, a proprietor of his own barber shop, his wife, Willie Belle, and their five children, were prominent members of the African American community.[2]

As a lodger in the Dixie household, Annie was without cares, chores, or schooling of any kind, even though she grew up with the Dixie children who attended school locally and routinely performed household chores. Sarah was deeply devoted to her daughter and she believed the local schools were unsuitable for her. Without the formal structure of education, Annie had an unusual amount of freedom for an African American child in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. It was this freedom of life without care in Bramwell that would lead to her development as a poet, through her explorations of the natural world and her reliance on the solitude she found in the only private place available to her, the family outhouse. It was there in the outhouse, that Annie, as an illiterate child, would take the Sears and Roebuck catalog and seclude herself, turning the pages, imagining and dreaming herself as a reader.[3] Her childhood in Bramwell was to prove foundational to her development as a poet and an intellectual. The solitude she found in the Dixie's outhouse was to resurface for her as an adult in Lynchburg, with the garden house her husband built for her, called Edankraal, a name derived from the combination of their names, "Edward" and "Anne," and the Africaans word for enclosure or corral, "kraal."[4]

Although separated, Annie's parents, Joel and Sarah, continued contact concerning their daughter's well-being. When Joel learned that Annie was not in school he sent Sarah an ultimatum that Annie must attend school or he would take her back to live with him. Although Sarah believed the local schools were unsuitable for Annie, she had learned of the Virginia Seminary at a church meeting. With Joel's ultimatum in mind, Annie was sent to Lynchburg to be enrolled in the Virginia University of Lynchburg (then known as Virginia Seminary) in 1893 when she was 11 years old.[5] Despite her largely illiterate childhood, Annie excelled at the seminary, delivering the valedictory address at her graduation in 1899.[5] Annie would return to Bramwell during breaks and over the summer. Having received a Normal School education at the Virginia Seminary, Annie returned to Bramwell after graduation and taught school in Elkhorn and Maybeury, West Virginia from 1899 - 1901.[6]

Later Life

While at the Virginia Seminary Annie met fellow student Charles Edward Spencer, whom she married on May 15, 1901 at the Dixie's home in Bramwell. In 1903, the Spencers moved permanently to Lynchburg and built a home at 1313 Pierce Street where they raised three children together, two daughters, Bethel and Alroy, and a son, Chauncey Spencer. Chauncey was to continue his mother's legacy of activism, playing a prominent role in military service during World War II. Chauncey's actions and determination led to the formation of the Tuskegee Airmen. Chauncey Spencer was to become a noted member of that group at a time when African American pilots had been refused military service as pilots.[7]

Before Anne started her life as a writer, she worked at an all-black local high school known as the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. She started working there for extra income when her children began attending college.[8] At the school, she worked as a librarian for more than 20 years from 1923 to 1945.[9] The library consisted of a rather small collection of books, which resulted in Spencer bringing books from her own collection at home to add to the library.[4]

Literary life[edit]

Anne Spencer poet Lynchburg

Anne Spencer's literary life began while she was a student at the Virginia Seminary where she wrote her first poem, "the Skeptic," now lost. She continued to write poetry throughout her life, using any scrap of paper or garden catalogue page that was handy, to record her thoughts. Spencer's poems spoke to race, nature, and the harsh realities of the world that she lived in.[10] Her work would go on to be widely anthologized. Spencer's career as a poet began in 1919, when she was planning to open a chapter of the NAACP in Lynchburg. Anne Spencer hosted James Weldon Johnson in her home, as a traveling representative for the NAACP. It was during this visit in 1919 that Johnson discovered Anne's poetry, and working through H.L. Mencken, Johnson's own editor, Anne had her first poem, "Before the Feast at Shushan," published in the February 1920 issue of The Crisis. She was 40 years old at the time her first poem was published.

The majority of Spencer's work was published during the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance.[11] Her work was highly respected during her time, and through her poems, she was able to touch on topics of race and nature, as well as themes of feminism.[12] For instance, critics interpret her poem "White Things" to be a comparison of the subjugation of the black race to the despoliation of nature.[13] Her work was notably featured in Alain Locke's famous anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation, which connected her to the lifeline of the Harlem Renaissance, despite the fact that she lived in Virginia, far from New York.[14] In addition, her poems were included in The Book of American Negro Poetry, which was edited by another figure of the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson.[15] During her lifetime, Spencer was able to publish over 30 poems. She earned herself a place in the esteemed Norton Anthology of American Poetry for her writing, making her the second African American to be featured in this work.[4] After her death in 1975, much of her work was published in Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry. She was later featured in Shadowed Dreams: Women's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.[16] In the later half of the twentieth century, much of Spencer's lost work was found and published by other famous poets.


Spencer House Lynchburg Nov 08

Anne Spencer died at the age of 93 on July 27, 1975 and is buried alongside her husband Edward, who died in 1964, in the family plot at Forest Hills Cemetery in Lynchburg. In 2016, the Library of Virginia and Dominion Power honored her as one of their Strong Men and Women in Virginia History.[17]

The Lynchburg home in which Anne Spencer lived and worked is now a museum, the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum. The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum is dedicated to preserving her legacy and connection to the Harlem Renaissance.[18] A celebrated gardener during her lifetime, Anne's garden was inextricably woven into her life and provided the inspiration for much of her poetry. A garden house, the one-room retreat, called Edankraal, where Anne did much of her writing, is also part of the property. Anne Spencer's papers, related family papers, and books from her personal library reside at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. Some of Anne Spencer's personal correspondence with James Weldon Johnson, specifically selected by her, are part of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale University.

Much of her poetry was deeply connected to her garden and she used her garden and the plants she grew there symbolically in many of her poems, among them, "Grapes, Still Life." Among her most influential works was "White Things", though it was not republished in her lifetime after its initial appearance in The Crisis. Nevertheless, its impact was such that Keith Clark, in Notable Black American Women, referred to it as "the quintessential 'protest' poem."[19] Still poetically active up to her death in 1975, Anne Spencer wrote one of her most evocative poems, titled for that same year, "1975."

In 2019, the United States Postal Service announced that Spencer would be featured in a 2020 Forever stamp honoring figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Others in the quartet include writer Alain Locke; novelist Nella Larsen; and historian Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.[20]

Further reading[edit]

  • Greene, J. Lee. Times Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry. Louisiana State University Press. (1977).
  • Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide (1989) Shockley, Ann Allen, New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books ISBN 0-452-00981-2
  • With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, Thurman, Howard. Chicago:Harvest/HBJ Book, 1981. ISBN 0-15-697648-X
  • Anne Spencer: Ah, how poets sing and die!, Spencer, Anne. Ed. Nina V. Salmon. Lynchburg: Warwick House Publishing, 2001
  • Shadowed Dreams: Women's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, Rutgers; 2 Rev Exp edition (October 25, 2006). ISBN 0-8135-3886-6
  • Marranca, Bonnie, editor. American Garden Writing: An Anthology. Expanded edition. Includes chapter on the restoration of Anne Spencer's garden. Lanham, MD.: Taylor Trade Pub., 2003.
  • Echoes from the Garden: The Anne Spencer Story. Washington DC: Byron Studios, 1980. (Documentary Film)[21]
  • White, Jame Baber. Lessons learned from a Poet's Garden: The Restoration of the Historic Garden of Harlem Renaissance Poet Anne Spencer. Lynchburg, VA, Blackwell Press, 2011.
  • Sacred Spaces: The Home of Anne Spencer. Introduction by poet Jeffrey Beam. Photos by John M. Hall. Captions provided by Anne's granddaughter Shaun Spencer-Hester and Jeffrey Beam in collaboration with Dr. J. Lee Greene, the biographer of Anne Spencer. The book accompanied an exhibit of Anne Spencer held at UNC-Chapel Hill February 2015 and are on exhibit through May 2015.
  • Frischkorn, Rebecca T. and Reuben M. Rainey. Half my World: The Garden of Anne Spencer, a History and Guide. Lynchburg, Va: Warwick House, 2003.
  • Packert, Beth, editor. Anne Spencer Revisited: A Companion to the Film by Keith Lee. Poems by Anne Spencer, edited and with notes by Beth Packert; illustrated with photographs by Susan Saandholland. Lynchburg, VA: Blackwell Press, 2008.
  • Anne Spencer Revisited: A Film by Keith Lee. Dance Theatre of Lynchburg, 2008.
  • Salmon, N. Anne Spencer (1882–1975). (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from


  1. ^ McCray, Carrie Allen (1998). Freedom's child : the life of a Confederate general's Black daughter. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books. pp. 123–29. ISBN 1565121864.
  2. ^ Greene, J. Lee (1977). Times Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer's Life and Poetry. Louisiana State University Press. p. 12.
  3. ^ Greene, J. Lee (1977). Times Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer's Life and Poetry. Louisiana State University Press. p. 15.
  4. ^ a b c "Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum". Retrieved 2019-06-30.
  5. ^ a b Greene, J. Lee (1977). Times Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer's Life and Poetry. Louisiana State University Press. p. 19.
  6. ^ "Anne Spencer". e-WV Encyclopedia.
  7. ^ "Memorial Day Tribute to Tuskegee Airmen: Chauncey Spencer". YouTube.
  8. ^ Payne, Craig (January 2021). "Anne Spencer". Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia – via EBSCOhost.
  9. ^ Nerd, Book (2011-08-14). "Little Known Black Librarian Facts: Anne Spencer and the Dunbar Branch of the George M. Jones Memorial Library (Lynchburg, Virginia)". Little Known Black Librarian Facts. Retrieved 2018-05-25.
  10. ^ "Anne Spencer". Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. 2018-05-25. Retrieved 2018-05-25.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. ^ "Anne Spencer, a poet of many styles - African American Registry". African American Registry. Retrieved 2018-05-25.
  12. ^ Honey, Maureen (1989). Shadowed Dreams: Women's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press. p. 256.
  13. ^ Honey, Maureen (1989). Shadowed Dreams: Women's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press. pp. XL.
  14. ^ Spencer, Anne (2011-08-11). "Anne Spencer". Anne Spencer. Retrieved 2018-05-25.
  15. ^ Johnson, James W. (1922). The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. pp. 167–174.
  16. ^ Honey, Maureen (1989). Shadowed Dreams: Women's Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Rutgers University Press.
  17. ^ "STRONG MEN & WOMEN IN VIRGINIA HISTORY 2016". Virginia Changemakers. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  18. ^ Higgins, Adrian (2015-07-28). "Where the Harlem Renaissance blossomed in Virginia, with poet Anne Spencer". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-02-12.
  19. ^ Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2009. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009.
  20. ^ "Anne Spencer, Harlem Renaissance poet and civil rights activist, to be honored on postage stamp". Lynchburg News & Advance. Retrieved 2019-10-26.
  21. ^ Champion, Laurie (2000). American Women Writers: 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 316. ISBN 9780313309434.

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